February 11, 1984
I won the bet. The kid on the doorstep was there, as I had expected. What I hadn’t expected were his features, which were more than a little familiar. True, he couldn’t have been older than twelve. The face was definitely rounder. The hair was longer and not nearly as neat. He had the beginnings of an overbite and wore glasses.
But behind the wire-rimmed lenses blinked two very familiar piercing blue eyes. The hair had the same dark luster and waviness. And the chin was dimpled. It was impossible, but there he was.
All I could think was that if I’d bet on the paternity issue I could have cleaned up royally.
“Is this Sid Hackbirn’s place?” asked his mother. She was a fairly tall woman, with long blonde hair and dark roots pulled back into a half ponytail. It was a cutesy do that didn’t diminish her imposing nature one bit.
“You must be Dr. Flaherty,” I said, finally finding my voice.
“Yes. This is my son, Nicholas.”
“It’s nice to meet you. Please, come in.” I smiled weakly as the boy walked past me. He gave me a funny look. “I’m Mr. Hackbirn’s secretary, Lisa Wycherly. Sid’s in his office. I’ll show you in.”
“If you don’t mind,” said Rachel. “I’d like to see him alone first.”
“You know, that might be a really good idea,” I said. I looked around frantically. Darby hung out of the office with his mouth open. “Darby, sweetheart. This is Nicholas. Why don’t you two go watch TV in the rumpus room? Nicholas, this is my nephew, Darby. You guys look like you’re about the same age.”
“I’ll be eleven Tuesday,” said Nicholas.
“I’ll be eleven in April,” said Darby. “Come on. Uncle Sid has a really great TV.”
The door in Sid’s office was closed. I knocked.
“Sid?” I called quietly.
The door opened.
“Rachel,” said Sid. “Come on in. It’s great to see you again.”
“Thanks, Sid,” she said warmly. “You’re looking really good. What happened to your glasses?”
“I got contact lenses.” He shut the door.
I shouldn’t have, but I wasn’t going to miss out on this one. I punched the intercom line on.
“I’m working emergency at Sunnyvale Community,” Rachel was saying. “I noticed you’ve been writing.”
“I’m doing okay at it. But Sunnyvale. So you’re still up north. What brings you down here?”
“Well, Sid, remember that last weekend we were together?”
Sid chuckled lecherously. “It wasn’t the sort you want to forget.”
“Mmm. No, it wasn’t, although that was why we went.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, that’s right. You were in med school then, weren’t you?”
“My next to last year. Remember that box of condoms that kept breaking?”
Sid laughed. “Yeah. That was the biggest reason I got my surgery that fall.”
“It was the first thing I did when I got my money. I got fixed.” Sid chortled pleasantly.
“Not soon enough.”
“Rachel, what is going on here?”
“You got me pregnant, Sid. It had to be you. I was so busy with finals, that weekend we went to Dad’s cabin was the only time I’d messed around the whole month.” Rachel chuckled. “I know it’s quite a shock. He’ll be eleven Tuesday.”
“Yes. His name’s Nicholas. I probably should have said something sooner, but I really didn’t want a man in my life then, not that you were the type to stick around. But Dad got ugly on the marriage issue, and I thought it would be better. But Nicholas has been wondering where he came from, and I thought it was time he met you.”
“Rachel, how you got caught is your problem.” Sid’s voice got that low even edge that meant he was really angry. “I do not appreciate you trying to hang it on me.”
“I was afraid you’d react that way.” She sighed, the hurt ringing through. “Wouldn’t you at least like to meet him?”
“Not this way. If you wanted a father figure or some other male role model, fine. I would have been happy to cooperate. But this kind of nonsense I don’t need.”
“I’m not asking for anything. Believe me, I’m not hurting financially.” She stopped and sighed again. “Well, I guess that’s that.”
“Good day, Rachel.”
“I’m sorry, Sid. I was alone. I was frightened. But I wanted a child. I was hoping you’d understand that, and at least talk to him. I guess I was asking too much. Goodbye.”
I snapped off the intercom as she hurried through the office. I caught her in the hall.
“I didn’t want anyone to see me like this,” she said, sniffing and wiping her eyes.
“He didn’t take it too well, did he?”
“I should have told him.”
“Listen. Where are you staying? I don’t know if I can do anything, but I’ll try.”
“Thanks,” she said in a tiny voice. Then she gathered herself together and became her imposing self once more. “I haven’t got a place yet. We came in from the airport.”
“Well, there’s the Beverly Hills Hotel down on Sunset, but that’s really expensive.” I led her into my office. Sid’s door was shut so I knew I was safe. “Let me get the phone book out and we’ll find you one.”
I got them a room at the Holiday Inn on the other side of the San Diego Freeway. Rachel thanked me, then collected Nicholas and they took off in the car she’d rented at the airport.
Darby watched with me out the living room window as they left.
“What do you think of Nicholas?” I asked.
“He’s really nice. I like him. He sure looks like Uncle Sid, though. You think..?”
“What does Uncle Sid say?”
“Lisa?” Sid called from the office.
“In a minute,” I called back, then turned to Darby. “I think you’d better stay out of the way. He’s mad and I can’t really blame him. She never told him about Nicholas and was a little rough about telling him now.”
I patted Darby’s arm and went to the office. Sid was in his, pacing. I went in and shut the door.
He glanced up at me. “I owe you fifty dollars.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“You didn’t happen to listen in, did you?”
Sid nodded. “This is steer manure.” [No, bullshit – SEH]
“Well, the way she handled it, yeah.”
“I suppose you believe her?” Sid glared at me accusingly.
I squirmed. “Sid, you didn’t see him.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“He, uh, didn’t get his looks from his mom.”
Sid stopped. “It can’t be,” he said softly. He began pacing again. “Damn it, it can’t be. I’ve always been careful. Always. Even with that damned box of condoms.” He stopped again. “Wait. You heard the conversation. You heard her say she didn’t want anything from me. I don’t have to acknowledge the little brat. That’s it. He’s not mine, unless Rachel files and gets the blood tests to prove it. It’s not my problem. He’s not my kid.”
I sighed and started out of the office.
“Alright, Lisa, out with it. You obviously don’t approve, so why don’t you just say so, and get it over with.”
I turned back. “I just seem to remember somebody else who didn’t appreciate not being wanted.”
Sid softly let out something really obscene.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“No. That’s really the bottom line, isn’t it?”
“Why don’t you just meet him? Maybe the two of you can talk and you can work something out. It doesn’t have to involve his mother.”
“Would that it were that simple, Lisa.”
He smiled softly. “You would. Alright. If you can get a hold of them, then arrange it for tomorrow. I’ll leave it in your hands.” He shifted then picked up the phone. “I’ve gotta get out of here.”
“Where are you going?”
“To get laid.” He turned to whoever had answered. “Yeah, Andrea. Sid Hackbirn…. Well, rough day. Listen, are you busy right now?… Oh, would I…. As soon as I can get there…. Great. See you in a few.”
He hung up and looked at me. There wasn’t anything I could say. Or he could say. Silently, he left the house.
I wandered into my office. Darby was there waiting.
“He sure seemed upset,” he said.
“He is.” I leaned on my desk.
“So what’s going to happen now?”
“Good question. I don’t think he’ll be back any too soon, so we may as well go to the movies tonight without him.”
“Okay.” Darby pushed his glasses back up on his nose. “What’s going to happen with Nicholas?”
“He’s coming over tomorrow.”
“I don’t know. I’ve got to arrange it.”
In Sid’s office, the phone rang. It was the line we use solely for Quickline.
“I’ve got to get that,” I said, going into Sid’s office. “Darby, why don’t you go watch TV and I’ll come get you when I’m done.”
“Sure.” Darby hurried out.
I shut the door, locked it and picked up the phone.
A male voice gave the confirmation code and I returned the receiver.
“Where’s Big Red?” demanded the man.
“Out. This is Little Red.”
“Damn. I need both of you. Well, you’ll just have to explain it to him. You still got that drop for Green Light from Thursday?”
“That’s the prelim info on part of a local investigation, and you guys are now stuck with it. We’ve got to meet immediately.”
“Oh, help. I can’t. I’ve got a civilian here and I can’t ditch him.” I looked over Sid’s desk, but he hadn’t left Andrea’s number.
The man cussed. “There’s got to be a way we can connect. I’ve got the final goods on that installation you’ve got coming up and the cash you’ll need for the investigation.”
“What’s the cash for?”
“We’ve got you two set up as information brokers. That gang from the aircraft plant is organized pretty tightly. The Feds are having a hard time keeping anybody undercover. We need you to set up a sting so we can figure out where they’re getting their stuff. The drop has all the phone numbers. But we’ve got to connect.”
“Wait a minute. Can you hold on a second? I’ve got to check something.” I put him on hold, then went to find that day’s newspaper. I’d seen Sid mark it for clipping, so I knew it was somewhere in the office. He’d left it on the couch. I found the Calendar section and opened it. The movie I wanted was in Hollywood. It was at a couple other places, but that seemed closest. “Alright. Make it a code 3. I’ll be at the Chinese Theater for the seven forty-five show. Look for me at the snack stand about fifteen minutes into the movie. I’ll be buying bonbons, Sprite, popcorn, and nachos with extra jalapenos. How will I spot you?”
He laughed. “You’ve seen me before. I’ll just stuff the goods in that monster of a purse you carry.”
“Okay. See you tonight.”
“Look, if anybody funny shows, get the hell out and don’t worry about the pickup. I may have been spotted. These guys have caught damn near everybody we’ve sent in. We’ll find some other way to make contact.”
My hands shook as I hung up. I hoped like crazy Sid would be home before it came time to leave, but I knew I couldn’t count on it. There was also Nicholas to deal with, too. I went ahead and called Rachel.
“It’s still pretty sticky,” I told her, “but I got him to agree to meet Nicholas.”
“I’m thinking it might be a good idea if we took Nicholas on an outing tomorrow, if that’s alright with you.”
“That will be fine. I’ve got some friends I can look up.”
“Oh.” I hadn’t meant to exclude her. “You’re invited, too.”
“That’s alright. I think it might be better. Sid’s probably not too anxious to talk to me.”
“You’re probably right.” I went over my schedule silently. “We should be able to pick Nicholas up at noon. Will that be okay with you?”
“Fine. In fact, if you want, you could take Nicholas tonight, or will you and Sid be busy?”
I stumbled at the insinuation. “Sid is, but I won’t be. I mean, I will. Would Nicholas like to come to the movies with my nephew and me?”
I still can’t figure out why I said that or how she had caught me off my guard.
“I’m sure he’d love it. Why don’t you pick him up here at five?”
“Uh, sure. We won’t be late. I’ll bring him back to the room by eleven.”
“Okay. See you at five.”
I hung up feeling very suspicious and very manipulated. Then I remembered the pick up that night and got scared. It was going to be tough enough with Darby there. All I could do was hope he would distract Nicholas.
There was also the drop from that past Thursday. I got the dial to the safe from the file drawer in my office, then struggled with the safe. It’s in the floor in Sid’s office, next to his desk. A waste can covers the almost imperceptible cut in the carpet. Eventually, the safe popped open.
I got the microdot viewer from Sid’s desk. It looks like one of those handheld doohickeys used for looking at slides, but the magnification is much stronger. I all but cussed. [So why didn’t you just go ahead? I know you felt like it – SEH]
According to the directions on the dot, Sid and I were to contact the suspected salesman by that day. I dialed, hoping I could set up the meeting for Monday. No such luck. The turkey, he called himself Tony, very nervously insisted that I meet him the next day at 3:00. I was able to talk him into meeting me at the zoo, only the spot he chose left me feeling more than a little uncomfortable.
It was a mess, but there wasn’t a darned thing I could do about it. So Darby and I made cookies, and come to think of it, ate almost all of them by the time we had to leave to get Nicholas.
We didn’t go into the room. Nicholas opened the door, said hello, then shut it. A minute later, he reappeared with his coat on.
“Doesn’t your mother want us to say hello to her?” I asked. On one hand, given how old Nicholas was, you could almost count on him to forget something like that. On the other hand, the way Rachel had been on the phone earlier, there was something just a little bit hinky about it all.
“No,” said Nicholas. “Hi, Darby.”
“Hi, Nicholas,” said Darby. “Aunt Lisa’s taking us to a really cool theater.”
I decided not to get on Nicholas’s case over his language. Instead, I shepherded the boys out to the truck. I took them down to Santa Monica for dinner at a restaurant I knew of that had really slow service. I let them walk down the pier to kill more time, only Nicholas mostly ran. Darby trotted along behind. But I’d timed it just right. We pulled into the parking lot next to the Chinese Theater right about seven thirty.
Nicholas yelped when we got to the sidewalk.
“What?” I snapped, sliding my hand into my monster of a purse to grab the S and W model thirteen revolver inside.
“These stars in the sidewalk,” replied Nicholas. “They’re so bitchen. Hey, who’s he?”
I swallowed. Before I could look at the tile and tell Nicholas, he was off running to the corner away from the theater, stopping at each star, with Darby.
“Boys, get back here,” I hollered.
They ran back.
“You two stick close to me and do whatever I tell you,” I said. “This isn’t the nicest neighborhood to be in after dark. If we stay together, we’ll be fine, but there are too many weirdos running around not to. Do you understand?”
Nicholas sighed. “Okay.”
Darby nodded. I turned toward the theater and they ran ahead, only not quite so far. Nicholas went wild with joy over all the footprints in the concrete and ran off before I could tell him not to. I got in line at the ticket booth and pulled Darby close to me.
“Listen, I want you to get him and bring him over here,” I said softly. “I don’t want you calling his name or anything. Just quietly tell him to come here.”
Darby took off. A second later, a medium-sized man stumbled into me, nearly knocking me off my feet.
“I’m so sorry,” he said out loud, as he reached out to steady himself. “I hope I didn’t hurt you. I just feel terrible about this.”
I had seen him before. Lots of times, in fact. I think he was in charge of one of the different lines along which we send stuff.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m fine.”
“Get the hell out of here,” he muttered, then aloud said, “I’m really sorry. I was just looking around at all of this. It’s incredible.”
His impressed gaze pointed out two dark-haired men bending over a souvenir machine.
“Yeah, well, it’s no problem,” I said. I shifted my purse on my shoulder and turned back to the line.
My contact ambled into a couple dressed in short-sleeved shirts, probably from some snow-bound climate, then into a souvenir store. I noticed several other people glaring in the direction of the souvenir shop. The two dark-haired men were talking together anxiously. They’d probably figured out my contact had made his drop, but to whom, and would it be worth roughing all these people up?
Their eyes kept falling on me, but then Darby and Nicholas showed. Apparently, that canceled me out for the moment.
“You won’t believe what this one guy did,” crowed Nicholas. “He stuck his nose in the cement.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “Stay right with me, will you?”
Nicholas shrugged but stayed. I bought the tickets. The two dark-haired men got in line also. Darby looked back at them.
“Those two guys were looking at us a long time,” he said quietly.
“I saw them,” I said, pushing the boys ahead of me into the theater.
“They sure look mean,” said Darby.
“Maybe we ought to fight it out with them,” said Nicholas, about to dart off.
“No!” I just barely got his arm. “Violence is no way to solve things. We’ll ditch them. Just let me think for a second. We’ll go in, but we won’t see the movie.”
The boys groaned.
I shushed them. “We’ll see it someplace else.” I let my voice get a little shaky as we walked through the lobby. “We don’t want those guys attacking us. Just follow me and do exactly what I tell you to. If I push you, run like crazy outside and wait for me.”
“This is just like a spy movie,” said Nicholas with a grin.
“Not even close,” I grumbled. “I’ll bet anything those two guys are not after secret documents, hidden jewels or anything like that.”
Nicholas’s eyes opened wide as he realized I wasn’t kidding. The two men entered the lobby just as we went into the theater itself. Instead of sitting down, I pulled the boys back against the curtains behind the last row. The two men went right past us and down the aisle. One pointed to a threesome about midway into the house. The other nodded and they followed.
I got a grip on the boys’ hands and pulled them into the lobby. We walked quickly until we got outside. I checked behind us. The lobby was mostly filled with latecomers, but no dark-haired men.
“Okay, run, but stay close,” I said, sliding my hand into my purse.
We ran back to the truck. I had the boys get in, while I ducked behind cars and looked around. Apparently, the men hadn’t realized they’d been had or thought I’d gone some other way. They weren’t to be seen. I drove the truck out of the lot’s back entrance anyway.
“Thank God I did all that research on rape prevention,” I sighed as we hit Franklin.
“Mom says your boss is a writer,” said Nicholas. He was seated next to me, with Darby behind him in the jump seat.
“Yeah. Magazine articles.”
“Is that how he got so rich?”
I smiled. “No. Freelancing doesn’t pay that well. He inherited money and invested it.”
“I thought he didn’t have any relatives,” said Darby.
“There’s his aunt,” I said. “They haven’t spoken for years and years, but she’s still around.”
“Then how did he get his money?” Darby asked.
I shrugged. “According to him, he wasn’t supposed to know. He figures it was someone on his mother’s side, because his aunt got a part of the estate, too. His mother died when he was a baby, so he figured he got her part.”
“Wow,” said Nicholas. “Does he have a father?”
“He had to,” I said. “There’s no way of knowing who. But everybody has a father of some sort.”
“I don’t,” said Nicholas, sitting back in his seat.
I was confused. He didn’t seem angry or upset. If anything, not having a father seemed perfectly normal to him.
We just barely made another movie at a theater closer to the Westside. It let out early, so I took the boys for ice cream. They were all over the place, especially Nick.
It was spooky, in a way. Nick looked so much like Sid, and even had a couple of Sid’s mannerisms, like the way they both would lift one eyebrow when bemused, or the way they both chewed ice. Yet Nick could be completely unlike Sid. For one thing, Nick was hyperactive. The kid literally couldn’t sit still for three minutes together. Sid doesn’t even fidget.
When we finally got back to the hotel, Nick unlocked the door to the room and said good night.
“Shouldn’t we check in with your mother?” I asked.
“No. I’m cool.” He slid in the door and shut it.
I looked at Darby. “You wouldn’t happen to know what is going on, would you?”
When we got back to the house, I thought I heard piano music. I put Darby straight to bed, then went to the library. Chopin’s Prelude #15 floated out of the room and when I went in, Sid was at the ebony grand. He ignored me and finished the prelude. But instead of going on to the next, he sighed.
“Sorry I missed the movie,” he said.
“When did you get in?” I asked.
“About half an hour ago.”
“You’re home early.” I waited. No reply. “Feeling any better?”
He shrugged. “What’s to feel? I can’t figure out why I’m so messed up by this. It doesn’t even seem real. I keep telling myself it can’t be my kid. It’s impossible.”
I tried not to sigh, but it escaped anyway. Sid glared at me.
“Look, I know you don’t like my attitude,” he growled.
“Sid, no. It’s not that.” I sank into one of the burgundy wingback chairs. “I don’t know what it is. In a way, I get the feeling Nick isn’t really ready to accept you any more than you are to accept him. It’s been a really weird night.”
Sid turned on the piano bench to face me. I told him about basically everything that had happened since he left that afternoon. Sid added the odd expletive in response.
“There’s something really fishy about that meeting,” he grumbled.
“Like maybe potential for observation? That guy, Tony, was so nervous on the phone, I’ll bet they’re trying to keep him where they can keep an eye on him.”
“And who he has contact with.”
I frowned. “I can’t go with my wig and makeup.”
Sid shrugged. “We’ll just have to take the chance, I guess. What other alternatives are there?”
I sighed. “You know what the weirdest thing of all is? I’m more worried about you and Nick getting together tomorrow than I am about that stupid meeting. And about Rachel. There’s something really funny going on there. I’ve got a bad feeling she wasn’t in that room when I picked Nick up, or when I dropped him off.”
“Is there anything you can do about it?” Sid asked.
“No. Not now, at any rate. I should have insisted on checking in with her.”
“So do it the next time.” Sid stretched.
“Well, I hope you don’t mind the way I arranged things.”
“You did good, Lisa.”
I got up, went over and sat next to him on the bench.
“Would you like a back rub?” I asked softly.
He smiled gently. “Yeah. Thanks.”
I straddled the bench as he pulled the sweater off of his shoulders and laid it in his lap. I started in the middle, working outwards in a circular pattern.